We live in technologically interesting times. The creation of truly dynamic, interactive narratives opens up great possibilities in theory, but so far, the practical execution of such stories has a very long road lying in front of it. Beyond: Two Souls is proof that the right balance between gameplay and telling a story has not yet been found, at least not at Quantic dream’s studios.
Graphically, Beyond appears to be running on a slightly upgraded version of the engine used for Heavy Rain. It’s certainly a pretty looking game with high production costs, but don’t expect state of the art visuals when next-gen consoles are just around the corner. The player may also encounter graphical hiccups here and there. Sometimes surfaces of objects look strange when it’s clear no ghostly entities have anything to do with it. Overall, however, the game looks fine and there are plenty of special effects that look amazing.
It’s a little more difficult to come to a judgment story-wise; Beyond has some excellent and moving scenes, but there are also several portions of the game that are relatively dull. The whole story is told in a fragmented way, a narrating technique which in this case appears to have the function of hiding the otherwise simple B-movie plot: You’re Jodie, a girl linked to an entity named Aiden who has special powers. Jodie’s youth is essentially ruined as she’s taken into custody by an agency that wants to study her gift. Jodie is played by Ellen Page, a fine actress, but the real star is Willem Dafoe, who at times manages to convey great surges of emotion over the screen.
The dynamical, interactive aspect of Beyond’s story is obviously still an interesting approach. There are different endings (although there are somewhat less factors than in either Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy or Heavy Rain) and you still get the illusion your daily conversation options actually make a difference during your first playthrough (but then you find out on a second playthrough that many of them actually don’t do all that much, some scenes excepted).
Unfortunately, Beyond’s story also suffers from clichéd narrative choices. There is an ‘other world’ called the Infraworld, there are evil and good entities, Jodie has a connection to this world whereas others don’t. Many supporting characters are shallow and either show unbelievably annoying, immoral behavior or are otherwise pure human beings (although the latter are fairly scarce). There’s the ‘caring’ parent and the ‘absent’ or ‘bad’ parent, etcetera. Such stereotypical characters alongside mostly trite ideas about an afterlife – clearly inspired by stale Christian cultural folklore – have become uninteresting not because the otherwise powerful message doesn’t come across, but as a result of over-usage in storytelling as a whole. The questions of our time – why we are here, living in a differentiated and strange reality that doesn’t a priori give us the answers we’re looking for – cannot even be asked in David Cage’s paradigm. That personal irritation put aside, it’s clear that Beyond has little more than a thinly veiled, typical ‘Hollywood blockbuster’ story.
Unfortunately that’s not the worst part; compared to the gameplay, Beyond is actually doing quite well in the department of fiction. The reason being that there hardly IS any gameplay. The only things you can do in the game are: Walk around with the left analog stick, trigger smaller or larger cutscenes with the right analog stick, switch to your ghost Aiden with triangle and float around or ‘interact’ with objects (mostly making noise or dropping something), take control of people (with extremely limited options; push a nearby switch, kill others, kill self), touch them or kill them. Some scenes allow Jodie to take out others, but there are no real combat or shooting gameplay mechanics other than pushing one or two on-screen button prompts. There are several blue spheres hidden in the game that unlock bonus content, but other than finding those, the linearity of the ‘game’ is appalling. Then there are the interactive cutscenes in which you have to move the right analog stick in the correct direction, which are easily fulfilled. Even the more ‘open’ environments are illusory decorations around a straight linear road you’ll just have to walk down to reach the next ‘interactive’ cutscene. Quantic dream has intentionally given a false impression of the game by showing off mainly those parts in which there is relatively much to do, such as ‘sneaking around’ or ‘fighting’ (pushing the right analog stick in the right directions). Everything in the game is scripted, determined; the only amount of freedom you get are some story deviations and choosing to walk half a meter to the left instead of to the right.
Hans Zimmer’s musical score is what you’d expect from the man; he isn’t really capable of creating a bad production, but this time around it sometimes sounds like a recycling of previous work (such as his nonetheless brilliant work for Inception). That’s not necessarily a bad thing – the soundtrack does its work and you don’t pay attention to the sound effects, which is precisely how their immersive function should work.
All in all, Beyond: Two Souls is a rental game that you want to spend one or two days with to watch (or ‘play’). There’s little to do when you’ve seen all the scenes and the gameplay isn’t worth revisiting. The ‘game’ is clearly aimed at a broader audience than just gamers, and the subgenre it creates – an interactive videomovie – isn’t a casual gamer’s cup of tea, or at least not until an absolutely amazing story is told by it.
Birth of the videomovie. Beyond: Two Souls is mostly an interactive cutscene comparable to an enjoyable B-movie.
Tested on PS3. Final Score 7/10